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November is Men’s Health Awareness Month. This national observance focuses on unique health challenges men face, like high rates of substance use, suicide, and premature death by preventable conditions.
When discussing the health and well-being of men in our society, it’s necessary to investigate the role of masculinity.
In his book “Man Enough: Undefining My Masculinity,” actor Justin Baldoni talks extensively about how unhealthy expectations surrounding masculinity limit men’s willingness to take their mental and physical health seriously.
Rather than “redefining” masculinity, which merely sets new limits and expectations, Baldoni’s approach of “undefining” creates more space for men (and everyone else) to fully be themselves.
Healthline has partnered with Baldoni and his team to create a video series and supporting articles to address how gender, sexuality, race, and class present unique challenges to men’s health.
We’ll break down some of the basics surrounding what masculinity is, how it harms men, and what we can do about it.
Using my own perspective as a trans person, I’ll also explore how essential trans identities are to this conversation and offer some key, actionable takeaways from “Man Enough.”
When we think about masculinity, we often associate it exclusively with cisgender men.
Discussing how men are taught to view themselves as “alphas” or weaker “betas,” Baldoni writes that idealized masculine traits include being “strong, sexy, brave, powerful, smart, successful and also good enough as a father and a husband.”
We might also conjure images of beards, muscles, and deep voices.
In this sense, masculinity appears to be the expression of biological maleness through men’s appearance, behavior, and traits.
But, Baldoni questions, who decides what makes a man “enough” of those things? Who said only men could have those traits, or that qualities like compassion and sensitivity aren’t “manly”?
As sociologist Raewyn Connell writes, “Gender is a social practice that constantly refers to bodies and what bodies do, it is not social practice reduced to the body.”
So, while masculinity refers to or evokes stereotypical male bodies, it isn’t entirely dependent on biology to function. Masculinity goes beyond men. Cis women, trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people can, and do, have masculinities, too!
Yet so often, the expectations of traditional, dominant (or “hegemonic”) masculinity requires we see masculinity as only belonging to men.
And men are expected to use this masculinity to dominate others through sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of oppression.
Scholar and activist bell hooks writes, “The crisis facing men is not the crisis of masculinity, it is the crisis of patriarchal masculinity.”
Patriarchal masculinity creates gender inequality by teaching men that their power and worth lies in exerting control over cis women, trans people, and others. To maintain this system, men also must constantly police each other’s bodies and emotions, fearing that if they appear weak or feminine, they will lose their standing as “real men.”
It’s not hard to imagine how this becomes a losing game for everyone. Here are just a couple of the ways men are hurting specifically:
- Men are
more likelyto misuse drugs than women are.
68,000 men diefrom alcohol-related causes annually, compared with 27,000 women.
- Men die by suicide over 3.6 times as often as women do. White men account for over 69 percent of all suicide deaths.
2015 statistics, both 1 in 3 women and 1 in 3 men have experienced “contact sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner” at some point in their life.
- Men’s life expectancy is 4 percent lower than women due to not engaging in preventive healthcare, according to a World Health Organization report.
These statistics disprove the “invincibility” myth that men are stronger and more resilient than other genders, that they can handle things on their own.
Men’s mental and physical health challenges are very real and must be taken seriously.
Many transgender people know what it’s like to experience the world in more than one gender role over the course of their lifetimes.
Many of us have also had outsiders react with judgment or violence to our gender expression, revealing broader social practices about how binary gender categories are constructed and maintained.
As J. Jack Halberstam writes, for a long time female (and trans) masculinities have been viewed as the “rejected scraps” of dominant masculinity to confirm the latter’s supremacy as the “real thing.”
But what if men can’t understand their masculinity using their own bodies and experiences alone?
Over literal centuries, cis women, trans, and gender nonconforming people have amassed a huge archive of knowledge, experiences, and ideas about gender, specifically masculinity.
Yet, most cis men have been unwilling or unable to fully engage with this ongoing project, despite many invitations to do so.
For those interested in accepting an invitation to the table, perhaps from Baldoni, please know that you are more than welcome, and always have been!
But recognize and respect those who were sitting down first — and listen.
U.S. trans statistics
- Per a 2021 Gallup Poll, 5.6 percent of U.S. adults are LGBT.
- A little over 11 percent of that group is transgender.
- UCLA’s Williams Institute estimated in 2016 that 1.4 million U.S. adults are transgender.
- In the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 32 percent of respondents identified with the gender identity term “trans woman”; 31 percent identified with “trans man”; 31 percent identified with “nonbinary”; and 29 percent identified with “genderqueer,” among many others (choices could overlap).
Baldoni covers a lot of ground in his book, exploring how sexuality, white privilege, education, career, marriage, and more have shaped his masculinity in both the past and present.
Here are takeaways that are central to undefining masculinity, and how we can use them to move the societal conversation forward.
Gender acceptance from others often comes at the price of conformity
“I discovered that what I had mistaken for a desire to be man enough was actually a fundamental need to belong.” (page 322)
While conformity and assimilation often mean safety, they don’t necessarily mean genuine acceptance or belonging. In fact, it’s often the opposite.
In “Man Enough,” Baldoni explains how he changed his skinny high school physique to a buff one to avoid being called weak by other boys. But then they just bullied him for being too muscular!
Patriarchal masculinity rules by fear, demanding men and boys meet its exact requirements or face shame and ostracization. As long as we participate in that process — by changing ourselves or trying to change others to belong — we’ll never escape the miserable cycle.
No one has the right to decide if anyone else’s gender identity or expression is “enough.”
The gender binary hurts all of us, even if that harm looks different
“The victims of masculinity, when it becomes unhealthy, as it has for so many of us men, are not just our friends, wives, girlfriends, and partners, but also ourselves.” (page 4)
“The reason you don’t fight for me is because you’re not fighting for yourself fully,” they said.
Because the same controlling and violent forces of patriarchal masculinity and the gender binary hurting cis women and nonbinary, gender nonconforming, and trans people are also hurting cis men.
“I don’t think the majority of people are ready to heal,” Alok explained, “and that’s why they repress us as trans and gender variant people, because they’ve done this violence to themselves first.”
We’re all still learning
“I’ve learned that I cannot be my best self by myself. Experiences are meant to be shared. Knowledge is meant to be passed down and around. And growth and pain are meant to become lessons to be taught to others so that pain can be avoided and collective growth can be achieved.” (page 98)
The willingness to reflect on yourself, to learn, to extend compassion — these are the things that allow us to have productive conversations and move forward, regardless of the subject.
During the journey to undefine masculinity, we’re all going to make a lot of mistakes. We need to recognize when we’re wrong and apologize. But we need to keep showing up.
Staying silent makes things worse
“If there’s something I am experiencing shame around in my life, I practice diving straight into it, no matter how scary it is. If shame thrives in silence and isolation, then the opposite must be true: shame dies in speaking up and in community.” (page 39)
Baldoni stresses that men can only truly empower themselves to undefine their masculinity once they are willing to accept vulnerability and reach out to others.
Bravery in patriarchal masculinity is often associated with physical strength or violence. But when you’ve been taught to dismiss your own emotions and traumas your entire life, finally expressing yourself requires far greater courage.
Be an upstander
“Just because I do not understand someone’s experience does not mean I cannot honor them. As I get the meaningful work of honoring myself, my own humanity, I am also responsible to do the meaningful work to honor others in their full humanity.” (page 174)
Being an upstander means refusing to remain silent or passive when faced with harmful and problematic behavior. It means honoring and sticking up for others’ humanity whenever possible.
For example, if a co-worker tells a sexist joke, upstanding could be as simple as a look of disgust, or replying, “That’s really offensive, cut it out.” Maybe you take that person aside later or send them a private text explaining why such jokes aren’t OK.
Upstanding signals not only to the intended recipient that you do not endorse their behavior, it also sends a message of solidarity to those around you.
Explaining his motivation for writing “Man Enough,” Baldoni says, “I am sharing my story in hopes that it invites you into yours. I am asking questions of myself in hopes that together the collective ‘we’ can ask those same questions.”
Masculinity isn’t inherently bad, nor does it just belong to men. But far too often, masculinity goes wrong, becomes unhealthy, and causes avoidable harms.
Baldoni intentionally refers to his book as “invitational,” not “motivational.”
We need to see masculinity and manhood not just as a personal journey for ourselves, but one which involves everyone. And that doesn’t mean our individual voices or experiences become less valuable.
It means that, no matter what we’re feeling, we’re not alone.
As Thomas Page McBee, author and ardent interrogator of masculinity, writes: “To build equitable relationships and societies, to create a world free of unwanted violence, to tackle the masculinity crisis — we must first acknowledge how we each are failing, right now, to see the full spectrum of humanity in ourselves and in others.”